Katy with a Caribbean Reef Shark, photo taken by Tom Pepper
Katy Ayres comes from Sutton-in-Craven, a land locked town in northern England. She became obsessed with sharks ever since she looked through a book on sharks her Grandmother owned when she was little. She would spend summers with her family in France and Spain where she would spend every second she could in the water, wondering about sharks, about their whereabouts and what they were doing!
Before starting her Bachelor's degree in Marine Vertebrate Zoology, Katy travelled at age 19 to Byron Bay, Australia, where she got her Divemaster certification. While diving there, she would watch the local population of Zebra Sharks in awe. Even though she was reluctant to leave, this experience inspired and motivated her to delve into her studies in the UK.
Katy wears our Mica top and Rianne bikini bottoms in Stella print in Black
After completing her Bachelor's degree, Katy returned to the sun and the sharks, this time to Fiji where she spent six months getting involved in a project at the University of the South Pacific, where she tagged baby hammerhead sharks and completed daily fish surveys on SCUBA.
She then went on to spend another six months in New Zealand with the Hauraki Gulf Common Dolphin project. Here she worked in the office inputting data, but also spent a lot of time on the boat completing dolphin surveys with photo identification.
It was then that Katy got accepted as a shark research assistant for the Charles Darwin Foundation in the Galapagos, which was an opportunity that changed everything for Katy. The Galapagos is the ultimate place for any biologist to visit, not to mention getting the chance to live there and study the sharks that inhabit the island's waters. Here she learned how to deploy BRUV (Baited Remote Underwater Video) systems; a Go Pro would film a baited box to record the different shark species attracted in the area. She learnt how to analyze the video footage and participated in shark tagging trips.
Katy returned to the UK to complete her Masters in Marine Environmental Management at the University of York. During her studies here, she collaborated with scientists Dr. James Ketchum and Dr. Mauricio Hoyos Padilla who are founders of Pelagios Kakunja, an NGO set up in 2010 to study and protect sharks and migratory species in Mexico. For Katy's thesis, she analyzed movement data from great white sharks at Guadalupe Island and completed a summer internship, participating in shark tagging trips and underwater shark surveys. Both Dr. James Ketchum and Dr. Mauricio Hoyos Padilla were supervisors of her thesis work.
Currently, Katy is half way through her PhD with Pelagios Kakunja and with CICIMAR-IPN University in La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico. She conducts her research in the Cabo Pulmo National Park, which is located on the eastern tip of the Baja California Peninsular in the Gulf of California, Mexico. In 1995 it was closed to fishing and is now one of the most successful marine protected areas in the world! As a result, fish biomass has increased by over 400% and in turn many top predators, in particular sharks!
Katy's PhD focuses on blacktip sharks (Carcharhinus limbatus) a coastal species that have a pointy nose and grow as large as 2.5 meters long. They form large aggregations that can be formed by hundreds of sharks! Nothing is known about this population in the Gulf of California, so she is super excited to publish her results on their movements and aggregating behavior this year.
In the field with Pelagios Kakunja
In the field with Pelagios Kakunja
In Katy's first year of her PhD she applied and successfully received an Early Career Grant from National Geographic, funding acoustic tags and a quadcopter drone for her PhD research with Pelagios Kakunja. Acoustic tags are small transmitters that are attached to sharks and detected by receivers deployed underwater, so they know when a shark is present in the area. The quadcopter drone has been used to complete weekly surveys to record and count sharks. The drone is flown along the coastline within the protected area - Cabo Pulmo National Park, over their shallow sandy habitat. The sharks are visible due to the contrast of the sand with their dark dorsal sides viewed aerially.
The drone surveys are part of a long-term monitoring program with Pelagios Kakunja. Knowledge of shark populations is critical to be able to protect them. Climate change is causing water temperatures to rise and the presence of blacktip sharks is related to cold water; they only aggregate in winter before they make a northerly migration following the cooler waters. Sharks are targeted in Mexican fisheries as their meat is consumed locally and their fins are exported to the Asian market for the popular dish ‘shark fin soup’. Cabo Pulmo offers a refuge for this species, but once they leave the boundaries of protection, they are at risk of capture. The satellite tags that the team attaches to the sharks shows their movement patterns and potentially other areas that act as important habitat and are also worth protecting from fishing.
Sharks play a key role in ecosystems, having top-down control on animals at lower trophic levels. The presence of sharks is the sign of a healthy ecosystem that can easily be thrown off balance if sharks were to be removed. Unfortunately, this is all too common worldwide due to overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction.
Katy describes to us what it's like to interact with these majestic and beautiful creatures: "For me, there is no better feeling in the world than being underwater with sharks. They are so perfectly evolved. When scuba diving they can swim quite close to you - until you breathe out and release your bubbles in which they get scared and swim away. They can sometimes be curious, but most of the time they are extremely shy animals and so I feel extremely lucky when I get the opportunity to be with them in the water."
Darwin and Wolf Islands, The Gelapagos
"This was the best experience I have had as a diver. I saw a huge whale shark being used by silky sharks as a scratching post. The silky sharks would swim in and turn upside down along the whale shark. Not to mention the huge schools of hammerhead sharks that would block the sunlight."
Revillagigedo Archipelago, Mexico
"Oceanic Manta Rays here actively seek out bubbles made from scuba-divers. There is no better feeling than when a Manta Ray swims directly towards you."
Beqa Lagoon, Fiji
"The sheer amount of shark species on one dive is mind-blowing, particularly the large bull sharks and tiger sharks."
Tiger Beach, The Bahamas
"The water visibility is insane, like being in a swimming pool, and to see more than one tiger shark at a time is something truly special."
Katy's next dream place to dive would be in Fakarava in French Polynesia where you can experience large numbers of grey reef sharks that take advantage of the groupers spawning.
After Katy completes her four year PhD (with two remaining years left), she hopes to continue living in Baja California, as she mentions it is so rich with marine life. She looks to continue living in La Paz, but hopes to also travel around the world where she can use drones, as it is an emerging and essential tool for shark research.
Photo of Katy taken by Mikial Tolmosoff
We would like to thank Katy and the team at Pelagios Kakunja for sharing this story and information about the amazing work they are doing. We hope that you are as inspired as we are!
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